Torn Mitrovica Reflects West's Trials in Kosovo

By Steven Erlanger
The New York Times

MITROVICA, Kosovo, February 25, 2000 -- Muhamat Uflla, 57, ran for his life on the tempestuous night of Feb. 3, when Serbs rampaged in their enclave of northern Mitrovica after a grenade attack on a Serbian cafe. At least eight Albanians died that night, but today Mr. Uflla was registering with the United Nations police to try to return to his apartment.

"This has to be solved; it's now or never," he said on the south side of the Ibar River, the Albanian side, where he fled with his family. But does he expect to go back soon? "Well, only when security improves," he finally said. "But we have to go back to our homes," he said, crying. "No one should stop us."

Under intense pressure from NATO capitals shocked at the violence in Mitrovica, Kosovo's international authorities have hastily drawn up a plan intended to improve the town's precarious state. They are keenly aware that Mitrovica has come to symbolize the West's failure so far to bring any real measure of security, justice or freedom of movement to minorities in Kosovo.

Mitrovica has encapsulated many of the West's problems, fully eight months after peacekeepers entered Kosovo. There are not nearly enough international police officers to patrol even this part of Kosovo adequately, while interethnic violence and intimidation continue undiminished all over the province; there is not a functioning judicial system to try those who are arrested, so many killers walk free; NATO soldiers are forced to do more policing, something for which they have not been equipped or trained.

Even more disheartening to international officials here, NATO governments are evidently weary of the commitment of men and money, with officials from the NATO supreme commander, Gen. Wesley Clark, to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright complaining bitterly that other countries are not keeping their commitments to supply personnel, police officers and funds.

At the same time, other nations complain that American troops are so nervous about any soldier's getting hurt that they have been unwilling to take real risks, and that American officials are too willing to attribute every problem to the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.

As a first gesture -- largely dismissed here as cosmetic -- the United Nations authorities and the NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers are building a pedestrian bridge across the Ibar that will lead almost directly to the three apartment blocks where Mr. Uflla and other Albanians lived. Many of the apartments were already looted in a three-hour period when peacekeepers were called away to another incident, United Nations police officers said.

But both the international police here and officials from the United Nations high commissioner for refugees are concerned about too early a return, even a symbolic one for the television cameras. "It won't solve the real problem, which takes time and a lot of effort," a senior official said. "They were killing each other 10 days ago. One little protected zone is no answer to the problem of the Serbs in the north or the impunity of violence everywhere in Kosovo."

For Bernard Kouchner, the chief United Nations official here, Mitrovica's troubles are a chance to prove to Western governments that the "status quo" they have been supporting in Kosovo will not hold, he said, and that there needs to be a new dose of commitment: of money, soldiers and especially police officers.

He has been promised 4,000 international policemen and wants 6,000, but so far only about 2,000 have arrived. Mr. Kouchner, a Frenchman, is in a running battle with his own government over France's failure to provide the promised police.

Some of the police, like an American from Atlanta, who has been here six months and lives in one of the three Albanian buildings, are scathing about the lack of support. "We don't have normal backup or any real justice system," he said.

A policeman from Northern Ireland said: "If we had enough police we'd certainly go for a more proactive policy, clamping down on arms and violence. But with no judicial system, we can arrest people all day and they're let out -- there's just no deterrent."

A policeman from Canada said: "Sure we can bash heads all day. But then don't ask us to walk a beat and have people's trust."

All the police officers interviewed agreed that there was not enough security or safety to send Albanians back."It's much worse than Northern Ireland," the second policeman said. "The hatred is so intense and it can flare any time, and we haven't got the resources. For now, we just need to keep them apart."

In early September, when refugee officials tried to bring a small number of Albanians back to northern Mitrovica, Serbs fired on them, and on the officials. No one wants a repeat. Under the current conditions, said Ardian Ibishi, a young Albanian in southern Mitrovica, any new returnees "can go back, but they'll only be able to stay one night."

Mr. Kouchner and the peacekeepers' commander, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, have taken some action: replacing the United Nations police chief, putting the new police chief's office in the town's NATO peacekeeping headquarters; putting in more police officers and troops and a few international judges and prosecutors; and changing a press spokeswoman perceived by some townspeople as pro-Serb.

They are working hard now to sell their plan for more investment, jobs, services and security to local leaders of both sides in Mitrovica, especially to the traumatized Serbs who see the town as their last stand in Kosovo, as well as to Washington and London, which "want Mitrovica suddenly solved yesterday," as one senior United Nations official said.

Part of the effort is simply to get Albanians who fled the most recent violence back into their apartments, before they are completely looted or occupied by others.

The three apartment blocks are very heavily guarded these days, though some apartments on the lower floors are still gaping open, their doors smashed down or ripped from the hinges, their furniture overturned and closets ransacked. One apartment of an Albanian family still has half-packed suitcases on the beds; evidently they had to flee sooner than they had hoped.

The new footbridge that the peacekeeepers are building seems ludicrous, given that there is another 200 yards away. But that bridge is the flash point of everything in Mitrovica, guarded by an increasingly large complement of troops, armor and coils of razor wire, to prevent crowds of Albanians from crossing. Tough young Serbs with Motorola walkie-talkies and dressed in bright blue overalls liberated from a gas station guard their end of the bridge, keeping watch from the Dolce Vita cafe, past which any Albanian returnees would have to walk.

Despite that scene, senior Western officials concede that Mitrovica is not Kosovo's only problem, nor even its biggest.

The central issue now, these officials readily concede, is not the majority Albanians, who suffered through a decade of Serbian rule before thousands of them died and hundreds of thousands were driven from home in the Serbian rampage that accompanied NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last spring. It is the rights and safety of the remaining Serbs and Gypsies in Kosovo, most of whom already live in protected enclaves or ghettolike areas surrounded by troops and wire.

Breaking down the de facto ethnic separation that has been allowed or even encouraged to develop will be an enormous task. It is hard enough, officials say, keeping Albanian firebrands and shadowy, organized armed Albanian groups -- some of them connected to the officially disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, the Albanian guerrilla force that battled Serb domination of Kosovo -- from succeeding in their efforts to drive the rest of the Serbs and Gypsies out of Kosovo altogether.

But the problems are also deep within the peacekeeping structure. Senior United Nations officials and NATO officers say that General Reinhardt, understanding the dangers of the effective partitioning of Kosovo that the Mitrovica border represents, pushed in November for a policy that would bring troops of different nationalities to Mitrovica as part of a tougher stance.

French forces, who control the sector, have a reputation for favoring Serbs, which French officials reject. Still, like the Americans in their sector, they are considered not to have conducted sufficient foot patrols.The French have not been active enough in looking for arms in either the north or the south. Peacekeepers in general, officials say, have been too reluctant to challenge the Albanian majority by clamping down on Albanian troublemakers across Kosovo.

A senior United Nations official, using the acronym for the NATO-led peacekeepers, said bluntly: "The unwillingness of the West and KFOR to read the riot act to the K.L.A. remains a central problem here."

In addition, the peacekeepers' commander cannot tell the commanders of the various armies what to do. Americans report to Washington, Germans to Berlin, French to Paris. General Reinhardt not only found the French reluctant to act more decisively or share the responsibility. He also found that many countries, including the United States, were reluctant to become involved in Mitrovica because of the potential danger to their troops.

The concentration on Mitrovica now is pulling troops and the police, already overstretched, from areas of Kosovo where the crime rates are considerably higher -- western Kosovo in particular, but also the intermittently tense American sector in eastern Kosovo. There, officials talk of a new offshoot of the Kosovo Liberation Army, supposedly dismantled, that wants to take adjacent land currently in Serbia that has large Albanian populations.

The European backbones of the NATO forces, the British, are eager to pull out of Kosovo, as the Canadians are doing. There is considerable concern about what will happen when even the current command structure is replaced in April by Eurocorps, the defense arm of the European Union, under a Spanish general.

In one of the three apartment buildings here, the last Albanian resident is a 23-year-old who translates for the police. She is trying to protect her family's apartment and to control her fear. "I only feel safe at night, when I'm locked inside and the soldiers are here" guarding the door, she said.

On another landing, Anka Bascarevic, a Serb, said she moved into an empty apartment with her husband after being pushed out of southern Mitrovica by Albanians. "There is no life here, this isn't life," she said, her voice shaking. "We have nothing and we have nowhere else to go."

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